UNT behavior analysis students helping dogs to serve veterans with disabilities

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 - 14:26
University of North Texas students Alyssa Schmidt (left) and Maasa Nishimuta work with Drill Bit, who is being trained as a service dog to a military veteran, inside UNT's University Union.
University of North Texas students Alyssa Schmidt (left) and Maasa Nishimuta work with Drill Bit, who is being trained as a service dog to a military veteran, inside UNT's University Union.

DENTON (UNT), Texas — Going against the friendly nature of his breed, Drill Bit, a young yellow Labrador, had started to be afraid of certain types of people. Sometimes he would bark if someone he didn't know looked at him, particularly if the person showed intimidating body language. Drill Bit's behavior interfered with his training as a Patriot PAWS service dog.

Thanks to several students in the University of North Texas' Department of Behavior Analysis, Drill Bit learned to be calm and confident around strangers. He now seems like a typical Labrador, wanting to be friends with everyone. The UNT students are teaching him to remain focused on one person, no matter the environment, so he will be prepared to serve his future owner — a veteran with physical disabilities or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patriot PAWS, a Rockwall-based nonprofit organization and one of 34 Texas organizations accredited through Assistance Dogs International, began partnering with UNT students last summer. The students are all members of ORCA, or the Organization for Reinforcement Contingencies with Animals, which is open to any student interested in human and animal interactions. ORCA students study the science of animal behavior and animal training while working with community organizations.

Jesús Rosales-Ruiz, faculty advisor for ORCA and chair of the Department of Behavior Analysis, said partnerships between UNT and the organizations are "a win-win situation for everyone."

"The students get experience and practice applying what they are learning. At the same time, their work is useful to society," he said.

Patriot PAWS, like other service dog training programs, relies on volunteer "puppy raisers." These volunteers keep a service dog in training for several months at a time and must attend classes at least twice a month with the dog trainers on Patriot PAWS’ staff.

The UNT students are puppy raisers in a slightly different way. They are assessing and training dogs that have developed particular behavior issues that may keep the dogs from completing the training.

While training with UNT students, the dog lives temporarily with Mary Hunter, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Behavior Analysis and 2013 master's graduate of the department.

Drill Bit's training takes place at Hunter's home, on the UNT campus and in stores, restaurants and other public places.

"He’s definitely made a lot of progress," said Alyssa Schmidt, a sophomore behavior analysis student who started working with Drill Bit at the end of the 2016 fall semester. "We recently saw someone who was standing still and crossing his arms, and might have previously been scary to Drill Bit. But Drill Bit glanced at the person and continued walking calmly with his trainer."

Drill Bit is the second dog the UNT students have trained since last summer. They previously worked with Logan, another Labrador, who resisted wearing his service vest and was very distracted in public. 

"The vests are important so humans will know that the dog is on duty and should not be approached or petted, but ignored," Hunter said. "But Logan would run away whenever he saw the vest."

Over several weeks, the students taught Logan to put his head through loops of several types of material, rewarding him for correct behavior. Eventually, Logan accepted the vest and learned to become less distracted.

Logan graduated from Patriot PAWS on Veterans Day, and is doing well with his assigned veteran, Hunter said.

Jessica Winne, a graduate student in behavior analysis and ORCA president, said she volunteered to work with Logan and Drill Bit to apply what she's learned with her rescue dog.

"When I learned about Patriot PAWS, I thought it was very interesting, but I knew I couldn't complete a puppy raise on my own. This is a way to conceptualize what I'm learning in class and how I will use it with my own dog," she said.

Cheryl Woolnough, puppy raiser coordinator for Patriot PAWS, said the UNT students helping to train prospective service dogs gives the organization "a tremendous advantage." The puppy raisers who usually help the Patriot PAWS staff train the dogs don’t have the knowledge and skills of UNT behavior analysis students and faculty, she said.

"It's so nice to send a dog like Drill Bit to the UNT students so they can focus just on him," Woolnough said.


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